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Where to look for treasure in California's new gold rush? Try John Adams' new opera

Where to look for treasure in California's new gold rush? Try John Adams' new opera
Julia Bullock, Davone Tines and company in the San Francisco Opera premiere of John Adams' "Girls of the Golden West." (Corey Weaver / San Francisco Opera)

There weren't very many girls to choose from for John Adams' new opera, "Girls of the Gold West," which had its premiere here last week. The California Gold Rush was a young man's game of strike-it-rich. And there was no sense of, let alone regard for, the earth-shaking social implications that a sudden infusion of massive wealth would have on the state, the nation and ultimately the world.

That alone makes "Girls" an opera for our time. It doesn't matter from which direction you approach the War Memorial Opera House. You will pass encampments of homeless seemingly growing in direct proportion to the invasion of newly minted tech millionaires in San Francisco, where there is nothing close to parity for women trying to cash in on Silicon Valley gold.

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The few at the Gold Rush camps tended to be wives of important men, prostitutes, entertainers, Native Americans or Californios, the original Mexican settlers. One, Louise Clappe, was a young doctor's new wife. Under the pen name Dame Shirley, she wrote a series of eloquent, richly detailed letters about the thoughtless mob rule, which she described with a clarity, calm and remarkable capacity to retain her sense of wonder.

Peter Sellars was responsible for the "Girls" concept, the libretto adapted from the historical texts (such as newspaper clippings, speeches, slogans and folk songs, but particularly Dame Shirley's letters) and the production. He and Adams chose the title as an arch comment on Puccini's melodramatic early 20th century Gold Rush opera, "La Fanciulla del West" (Girl of the Golden West). But ultimately, "Girls" revolves around a single woman. It is Dame Shirley's opera. She sets the tone, and she is its unlikely heroine.

That tone has already taken many aback with some startlingly negative reviews as well as bending-over-backward attempts to find some value in a work by a team that has given us operatic masterpieces in the past. Without question, the most highly anticipated new opera of the year — a year in which Adams turned 70 and Sellars, 60 — "Girls" has also been presented as the first opera of Trump times. The populist spirit of the 49ers, the lack of regard for the environment in pursuit of wealth, along with the rampant racism against Latinos, Chinese and black people has created the expectation of the kind of political opera that the lyric stage has historically been very adept at.

There is, in fact, plenty of boisterousness in "Girls," both splendid and shocking. There is righteous anger, spectacularly expressed. Outrage is in the musical, literary and dramatic language of "Girls." Dame Shirley is properly horrified by much of what she sees. An Easterner from New Jersey who was educated in New Hampshire, she has her own prejudices to confront.

But her greatness is in her capacity for acceptance. Rather than allow herself to be ruled by hysteria, she lowers the temperature with a willingness to dig for, and stand up for, good — which is a lot harder to find than gold.

Dig she and we must. The characters either are based on historical characters or are composites. There is a story, but it's disjointed. The staging, like nothing else Sellars has done, is disjointed. Adams' score, like much of what the composer has done, (on the surface) flows from one moment to the next but has its own disjointedness.

The audience needs to put it all together, and there is a much to put together, with nearly three hours of music. I attended the premiere Tuesday night and returned for the second performance Friday. That was not enough. (It runs through Dec. 10, then moves on next season to Dallas Opera and Dutch National Opera, the co-commissioner and co-producers.)

"Girls" begin with optimism. Two miners, Clarence and Joe Cannon, personify the high times of something life-changing, just out of reach. The men of Rich Bar mining camp are a testosterone collective — whooping it up, gambling away fortunes, shooting at one another at the slightest provocation and just as readily turning sentimental.

Adams gives them light and darkness. He sets old cowboy music with new tunes, not unlike the old ones but with harmonies that sound like him and that remind us we are looking back.

Everything about this opera centers on observation, not experience. Sellars' staging is ferociously rigorous in the costumes (Rita Ryack) to the point that the attractive, fabulous young cast looks faintly ridiculous. David Gropman's sets are made from commonplace props rolled in by stagehand (no side curtains makes the backstage visible) as though this were Wild West kabuki.

This is the world Dame Shirley enters. Ned Peters — a recently freed slave who is a classy black cowboy, cook and musician — is her driver and soon her closest (and possibly romantic) friend. Others on the scene are the Chinese prostitute Ah Sing, who has become attached to miner Joe, and a Mexican couple, Ramón and Josefa Segovia, who work at the Empire Hotel.

In the second act, a Fourth of July celebration turns awful. The miners recite "Macbeth," as they really did. They get drunk, and their racism rises. Chileans receive brutal whippings. Joe attempts to rape Josefa, who stabs him and then is hanged.

Adams writes something special for each member of the cast. The fast-rising soprano Julia Bullock has her first great role as Dame Shirley, and she inhabits her with unrelenting radiance. She closes the opera with Adams' most ethereal aria, finding promise of a wonderful California sky that cannot be darkened by the terrible deeds that happen under it.

Bass-baritone Davóne Tines commands the stage as Ned. He is magnificent in his great aria of a black man reminding the miners this "Fourth of July is yours, not mine." J'Nai Bridges' Josefa goes to the gallows with exceptional grace, singing in Spanish and English her resolve to maintain dignity in a place where that needs mentioning.

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The whole cast — including the high soprano Hye Jung Lee (Ah Sing), bass-baritone Ryan McKinny (Clarence) and tenor Paul Appleby (Joe) — is simply the future of opera, on one stage. Lorena Feijóo is the soloist in Lola Montez's "Spider Dance," choreographed by John Heginbotham and maybe as crazy as the original.

Grant Gershon, of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, conducts with unfailing command and feeling for Adams’ music. The men of the San Francisco Opera chorus rise to a very difficult occasion.

"Girls of the Golden West" is our state and our country two centuries ago and now. It provides the same penetrating look now that Dame Shirley did then. It needs no defense. Time, if only we will listen, is on its side.

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